Access for all: Playhouse Square’s sensory-friendly performances foster inclusion

The staff at LeafBridge: A Center of Excellence for Children is dedicated to helping students live life to their fullest, despite the challenges they face.

Kristina Smith, LeafBridge’s early childhood intervention specialist, says much of the organization’s mission centers on helping students create a sense of belonging and feel that they are part of the community.

“The kids in my K-through-five classroom have multiple disabilities, ranging from cortical visual impairment to communication, physical, and fine motor concerns,” she explains. “As a result, many feel isolated from others their own age.”

Playhouse Square plays a leading role in making that sense of belonging happen.

ensory Friendly Performance at Playhouse Squareensory Friendly Performance at Playhouse SquareFor more than a decade, the performing arts center has hosted Sensory-Friendly Programming designed to increase access and inclusion for children and adults of all ages, perspectives, and abilities, including those with autism.

The family-friendly shows feature low auditory volume levels without startling or loud special effects. Noise-reduction headphones are provided when needed, and lights are kept on during the performance.

Guests are free to talk, clap, stomp their feet, and move about. A quiet room on the second floor of the Mimi Ohio Theatre has dim lighting and a cozy tent containing a beanbag chair and fidget toys to help anxious audience members calm down so they return to enjoying the show.

The environment created at these performances, Smith praises, is nothing short of magical.

“Many of our kids have never been to a play before and don’t know what to expect,” she explains. “It can be scary at first. But when the curtain goes up and people around them begin talking, singing and laughing, our kids start smiling, cheering and really get into it. When they see the reactions of others in the audience, they know it’s okay to be excited, too.”

Additionally, the Playhouse Square volunteer corps of RedCoats, who help welcome patrons and help them with everything from finding their seats to searching for a lost cell phone, also help welcome the guests to a sensory-friendly performance.

“We have multiple interactions with Playhouse Square’s RedCoat volunteers, who go out of their way to walk right up to our children and speak directly to them,” Smith says. “That means so much because our kids don’t always have face-to-face interactions where they get to understand, ‘I’m me. I’m in the world, and I want to talk to you.’”

Over the course of a decade, more than 11,000 people have attended Sensory-Friendly Programs at Playhouse Square.

The Rainbow Fish,” part of Playhouse Square’s Children’s Theater Series, will be staged at the Mimi Ohio Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 27 at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 28 at 2 p.m., with a Sensory-Friendly performance on Sunday, Jan. 28 at 11:30 a.m.

Presented by the Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia, the production tells an enchanting tale of a beautiful fish, whose scales shimmer in all the colors of the rainbow. He is both admired and resented by the entire underwater world until a clever octopus advises him to share his most prized possession—give each fish one of his beautiful scales.

Daniel Hahn, vice president of Playhouse Square Education Department, says he understands why the productions are so touching for everyone involved.

The Rainbow Fish - Sensory Friendly PerformanceThe Rainbow Fish - Sensory Friendly Performance“The beautiful thing about the arts is that they speak to all of us across all of our differences,” he reflects. “The sensory-friendly shows provide a nonjudgmental environment for people to come together and experience that.

Hahn adds that companies like the Mermaid Theatre are a particular asset for the sensory-friendly stagings.

“The touring companies who stage these productions are absolutely wonderful and are well-prepared for them,” he says. “Many actors have thanked me and mentioned that our audience is the most responsive they’ve ever had.”

The idea for bringing sensory-friendly programming to Playhouse Square was sparked after Hahn watched a television special describing ways in which the nonprofit New York City-based Theatre Development Fund helps those with disabilities enjoy the performing arts.

“I saw the story and it made so much sense,” Hahn recalls. “If we’re going to serve the widest possible audience, we can’t exclude the incredible number of people in our community who have sensory needs.”

Captivated by the concept, Hahn traveled to Pittsburgh in 2012 to see an inclusive performance of “The Lion King.”

As a parade of animals walked down the aisle to start the show during “Circle of Life,” a mother and daughter seated several rows behind Hahn caught his attention: The little girl was burying her head in her mom’s lap and, at the same time, reaching out to the elephants as they passed by. Overcome with emotion, her mother had tears streaming down her face.

“You just knew that this was the first time they were welcome in a performing arts center, and that her daughter was able to participate in this experience,” Hahn says. “Seeing this was so impactful for me. In that moment, I knew we had to bring this kind of programming to Cleveland.”

His Playhouse Square colleagues agreed.

Hahn points with pride to the 2015 National Rehabilitation Association Excellence in Media Award hanging in his office. Established in 1925, the Alexandria, Virginia-based organization is dedicated to advocating, supporting and enhancing the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families.

He also points to local organizations that have partnered with Playhouse Square to support the Sensory-Friendly programming in the theater district.

“We couldn’t continue to create a welcoming ambiance without help and input,” Hahn reflects. “Our partnership with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities (Cuyahoga DD) has been instrumental in making the initiative a success.”

Cuyahoga DD occupational therapists and members of the agency’s community development team lead training sessions to ensure Playhouse Square’s staff knows what to expect from the audience and can handle concerns that may occur. Cuyahoga DD volunteers are also on hand during performances to help families settle in and answer questions they may have about story content.

As Hahn and his team begin planning the 2024-2025 season of sensory-friendly shows, Janet Keeler, Cuyahoga DD’s director of community development, reflects on the vital contribution Playhouse Square makes to empowering people with developmental disabilities learn to live, work, and play.

“We believe every business and organization in our community should be welcoming and inclusive,” Keeler says. “Playhouse Square is a place where anybody can be successful at any level, flourish, and feel good about themselves.”

Tickets to the sensory-friendly performance of The Rainbow Fish on Sunday, Jan. 28, are $10. Tickets to the conventional showing of The Rainbow Fish on Saturday, Jan. 27 at 11 a.m. are also available for $15; and there is limited availability for the 2 p.m. Jan. 27 and the 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28 conventional performances.

Linda Feagler
Linda Feagler

About the Author: Linda Feagler

Northeast Ohio native Linda Feagler never tires of indulging her passion for arts and culture Her favorite pastimes include attending Broadway musicals at Playhouse Square, visiting one-of-a-kind bookshops that include Loganberry Books in Cleveland Heights and The Learned Owl in Hudson, and spending the day with Impressionists at The Cleveland Museum of Art.